By Josh Rushing with Sean Elder. Palgrave Macmillan. $24.95.
Control Room, the acclaimed 2004 documentary about Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraq war, turned Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a young Pentagon spokesman into a media darling. The film captured the blue-eyed, Texas-born Marine as he seemed to grow increasingly skeptical of the official justifications for the American invasion, which he earnestly fed to reporters at the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar. After the film’s release, Rushing’s newfound outspokenness about the war made him a hero to its critics, and a traitor in the eyes of some of its supporters.
That split was only reinforced when Rushing accepted a job as a correspondent for Al Jazeera’s new English-language channel in 2005. But his new memoir, Mission Al Jazeera, adds some nuance to the story of his conversion from “squared-away” Marine to gung-ho journalist. He tells his story as if he had been always been destined to become a correspondent for the Arabic news channel. Yet his book shows that Rushing’s path was determined less by fate than the interesting confluence of events he was caught up in. Indeed, Rushing may never have made the career move that substantiated Control Room‘s portrayal of him had the military not overreacted to the film by forbidding him to speak to the media. Rushing obeyed his orders, but when his superiors accused him of a using his family to run a “back channel media campaign,” he resigned his commission. When Al Jazeera came calling a year later, he bit.
His memoir also offers some new insight into the making of Control Room. For instance, the filmmakers filmed Rushing for just a couple of weeks, and his growing misgivings about the war were teased out in the editing process. Rushing has no objection to the character arc the documentary created for him, but his memoir reveals that the filmmakers perceived an important tension within the military. The bulk of the documentary’s footage of him was filmed during his interview with an Al Jazeera reporter: Rushing, unlike most of his superiors, insisted on engaging with the widely influential Arab news channel. This interview has emotional heft simply because it takes place between an educated Arab and an American military man reasonable enough to acknowledge, despite the sound bytes about freedom and righteousness he was ordered to provide, “the true human cost of war.”
However, readers expecting his memoir to offer a major exposé of how the military duped the press before and during the invasion of Iraq will be disappointed. Rushing admits that “between truth and falsehood lies a vast gray area, and considering the spin CentCom was releasing, we were deep in that gray area.” But he reserves his strongest criticism for the media, arguing that American news outlets failed to interrogate the Pentagon—and the White House—with enough skepticism. He writes:
Since going to work for Al Jazeera English and reporting on military spin and its media targets, I have unearthed some old footage of myself supplying Fox News with the message of the day. I’m defending reports of civilian casualties in Iraq and saying things like, “America is such a benevolent nation but look at what the enemy is doing: fighting us in civilian clothes, so that innocent people become the target.” I hit my lines and, in retrospect, it’s pretty embarrassing—but I was doing my job. The question is if the American media remembers what its job is.
This point isn’t unreasonable, but it fails to get at what made this administration’s handling of this war unique. Rushing was a low-ranking officer, after all; Americans’ thirst for the real story of the Iraq war has put demands on his story that it can’t fulfill. “People love to debate whether the United States should have invaded Iraq, and what the real reasons were for going in,” he writes. But his answers of those of a soldier, riled more by incompetence than crass partisanship: “[T]o me the really important questions are: What the hell happened after U.S. troops reached Baghdad? Who allowed Bush’s illusory ‘Mission Accomplished’ to unravel?”
Rushing now finds himself in the odd position of being, to some extent, a talking head on U.S.-Arab relations although his first exposure to Arab culture was The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Iraq, which he read as he flew to Qatar in the fall of 2003. Paradoxically, it seems the young lieutenant knew more than many by the time he hit the ground. “In spite of the book’s unfortunate title,” he writes, “plenty within its pages gave rise to concern about what we were planning to do in Iraq.” His observation might seem unbelievable if they didn’t echo claims made by even high-placed officials sent to Baghdad, such as Bernard Kerik, who told the New York Times he prepared to lead the American police mission to Iraq by watching A&E documentaries about Saddam Hussein.
Most of Rushing’s exposure to Arab culture during his six-month deployment at CentCom and later as an Al Jazeera correspondent has consisted of informal conversations with journalists, yet Americans are eager to hear what the self-proclaimed novice has to say. It may be that Americans need to hear the obvious when it comes to the Middle East: Rushing rightly laments Americans’ failure to recognize that “[e]very discussion of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East begins and ends with Israel and Palestine.”
Ultimately, Rushing seems to be writing for an audience of disillusioned conservatives—which may be what he is: Someone who sees the United States’ blunders in the Middle East as oversights rather than machinations and for whom engaging with other cultures is a novel but welcome idea. Rushing’s main message is that Americans and Arabs need to learn more about each other’s cultures and histories—an idea which hardly seems radical, but has nonetheless managed to stir up a fair amount of controversy. The budding journalist hopes his role as a correspondent for Al Jazeera English will allow him to “bring aspects of the Arab experience to American viewers while simultaneously offering an international audience more varied and complicated glimpses of America than the one-dimensional images they’ve come to expect.” At first blush, he sounds naïve. But, considering that Rushing is really talking about opening the minds of educated, moderate Arabs and the centrist Americans who swing elections, his modest proposal is worth hearing. And if the reaction it has drawn from the Pentagon and its defenders is any indication of the power of Rushing’s message, maybe he’s on to something.